MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – It’s a phrase we’ve heard over and over this year: We’ve called in the National Guard.

The citizen soldiers and airmen are our neighbors and friends. In the midst of chaos they have helped restore order. It’s been a historic year of state activations. Only WCCO was there as soldiers recently reported again for duty.

You’ve seen them on the front lines of Minnesota’s greatest challenges in 2020. Members of the National Guard called to assist in Minneapolis and St. Paul to restore peace after days unrest, and they’ve been helping in the fight against COVID-19.

“It’s not something we ever expected, but here we are,” Sgt. Rachel Pickhardt said.

On a blustery October morning, roughly 100 soldiers learned they’d been called up again.

“We get a phone call or text message or both and you just have to drop everything you’re doing,” Pickhardt said.

Members of the National Guard have full-time jobs, families, and responsibilities in addition to their commitment to country.

Sgt. First Class Tom Stoffell is a high school teacher.

“Switched from the school day to making sub plans. It’s getting more of a routine now after doing it so many times,” Stoffell said.

The order on this day: to report within two hours. Soldiers come with packed bags. They check in, check out their weapon, eat a hot meal, and get their truck assignment. Pickhardt was one of the first to arrive.

“As more soldiers arrive, I place them in a truck to make sure we are mission ready as soon as possible. It’s critical to make sure we are not missing anything, it’s critical to our mission to be the best as fast as possible,” Pickhardt said.

Some have farther to travel, others have more to arrange before reporting for duty.

“It’s stressful. It’s definitely stressful, especially for people who work every day, have kids,” Pickhardt said.

Pickhardt was recently laid off by Minneapolis police due to budget cuts. She was a community service officer. Now she’s assisting the department through her service as a soldier.

“We do all sorts of training throughout the year that since I’ve been in this unit, that consistently have gotten us prepared for this moment,” Pickhardt said.

Her military police company goes through civil disturbance training. It’s why the men and women are often the first activated when there’s unrest.

“We are trained. We do yearly qualifications through state instructors in riot control and crowd control. We also work with agencies like State Patrol, DNR,” Capt. Ron Hvinden said.

That background is critical when community safety is at stake.

“Everybody throws everything down and takes the call from the Gov. Tim Walz and goes and helps their fellow Minnesotans,” Hvinden said.

That’s what happened on the October day. The soldiers left their civilian life and showed up for the state. Many are combat veterans. They say unlike when they’re serving overseas, here they’re serving neighbors, there to be more of a friend and to help.

“We don’t have to get violent. We’re not launching tear gas. We’re not doing any of that stuff, we’re most of the time talking with people,” Hvinden said.

Sometimes they don’t know where they’ll lay their head at night, or when the mission will end. It’s all part of the job.

“We just do the best that we can to protect the people of Minnesota as well as maintain the order of our city,” Stoffell said.

This year Walz called upon the National Guard through eight executive orders. That includes roughly 100 missions, 60 of which were conducted in support of civil unrest. Another 30 for COVID-19.

WCCO also spoke with a soldier who responded to both: riots and COVID-19. Hear the impact it has on a family, Tuesday at 6 p.m.

Jennifer Mayerle

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